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COVID-19’s unintended (positive) consequence

by Manny de Freitas MP, Shadow Minister of Tourism, Democratic Alliance

16 April 2020

South Africa, and indeed the world, is changing since the Covid-19 pandemic – literally. This pandemic has given Mother Nature a gap to take back the earth that humanity had taken from it with its assault on her essential life systems. It appears that nature is taking a breath when the rest of us are holding ours.

Photo: Dal Lake, Kashmir (Pixabay)

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) via their website advise that they are conducting research on how the earth is reacting to COVID-19 with the change in human behaviour. The European Space Agency (ESA) also provides astonishing colour-coded satellite pictures of our planet. Both these agencies confirm the sharp decline of carbon emissions since the lockdown has become the norm worldwide.

Due to lockdowns in countries throughout the world, human behaviour has changed extraordinarily. Lockdowns started with China with their localised quarantine from 23 January 2020 in Wuhan City and other neighbouring cities in the Hubei province. This is significant considering that Wuhan alone accounts for 11 million people. After that countries imposed similar lockdowns that restrict activities considerably. By mid-March the majority of countries and regions had instituted one or other type of lockdown.

Despite the relatively short time where humans have slowed down in every way, already the planet is reclaiming what belongs to it. ESA satellite images show less nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels compared to those in 2019. Bloomberg reported that there was a significant reduction of NO2 levels, or air pollution, over China. This reduction equates to almost 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) in China and could curb global emissions from air travel by 11% to 19%.

An environmental resource economist, Marshall Burke calculates that the two months of pollution reduction has saved the lives of 4000 children under 5 and 73000 adults over 70 in China alone. It’s early days so there is limited data, but already satellite images show a dramatic drop between 1 January to 11 March 2020 in air pollution over northern Italy, particularly NO2 which is mainly emitted by cars, trucks, power plants and industrial plants.

Dr. Clare Noone from the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) Centre for Climate and Air Pollution Studies claimed that air pollution is estimated to be responsible for 8 million deaths per year. She highlighted that if one lives in an area with poor air quality one is already vulnerable to many health effects, and the associated lung damage from air pollution which may worsen those infected with Covid-19.

Since social distancing practices were instituted in American cities, they appear to have shown decreased air pollution. The New York Times reported "huge declines in pollution over major metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Chicago and Atlanta."

To bring home the point on pollution, Jos Lelieveld, a physicist from the Cyprus Institute states that both the number of deaths and the loss in life expectancy from air pollution rival the effect of tobacco smoking and are much higher than other causes of death, such as malaria, violence, HIV/AIDS, alcohol and drug abuse. There’s no disputing that air pollution is one of humankind’s greatest killers.

But that’s not all, thanks to reduced human activities, other unintended consequences are that the world is much quieter. Universities are finding that cities are noticeably quieter during lockdown than before lockdowns were instituted. Social media posts describe how people are hearing birds sing, and other sounds that they had not heard before. Quieter environments have positive bearings on not only on people but other creatures such as our pets, birds and other insects we take for granted such as butterflies.

Even our oceans are quieter. Michelle Fournet, a marine ecologist at Cornell University in New York, who studies acoustic environments, says just pulling cruise ships out of the water will reduce the amount of global ocean noise almost instantaneously. This is an unmatched pause in ocean noise that probably hasn’t been experienced in decades. This is important as ambient noise from ships and other maritime traffic can increase stress-hormone levels in marine creatures, which can affect their reproductivity.

It is too early to tell if the COVID-19 “pause” will have a long-term positive effect on our planet and the environment – it really depends on how long lockdowns stay in place. I fear that once quarantines are lifted and productions are ramped up that we will quickly go back to our bad old ways of abusing our planet and her environment.
As more and more data is collected from all over the world, it should be used as lessons for humankind to change its ways of doing things in a more sustainable and greener fashion.




February/March 2020








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